Professional Development (and Teacher Agency) As We Know It

Professional development (PD) in education has an image problem. Ballyhooed and derided in seemingly equal measures, it is celebrated for its potential to improve teaching and learning even as it is dismissed as a waste of time or money or both. The vociferousness and durability of these seemingly opposing sentiments give PD an air of incoherence and the impression that its boosters and detractors must not be talking about the same thing. What is the PD people love? And what is the PD people love to hate? And does it matter?

These questions, among others, were at the heart of a joint paper released yesterday from Learning Forward and the National Commission for Teaching and America’s Future (NCTAF) on professional learning and teacher agency. In it, Laurie Calvert, a policy advisor to both organizations, drew on interviews with two dozen teachers and school leaders about their range of professional learning experiences – both bleak and inspired – and argued that “to transform professional learning so that it really supports educator learning, education leaders will need to pay greater attention to the importance of teacher agency” (p. 3). She defined teacher agency in the context of professional learning as “the capacity of teachers to act purposefully and constructively to direct their professional growth and contribute to the growth of their colleagues” (p. 4), and further argued that greater teacher involvement in decisions about their learning holds promise for increasing teacher motivation and engagement in professional learning environments.

In a laudatory blog post about the NCTAF/Learning Forward paper, which he hinted might just be the beginning of the end of “professional development as we know it,” HGSE associate professor Jal Mehta was thinking big about what increased teacher agency in PD could mean for the field of teaching. He noted the recommendations that teachers and principals be more involved in district-level decisions about PD and that teachers have more choice over their own learning, then suggested that changes like these would be instrumental not only in remaking the design of professional learning at the school and district level but could also radically reorient the education system as a whole. Shifting more decision-making about practice to practitioners would facilitate a transition from the present bureaucratic hierarchy in which teachers are frequently told what to do to a system in which teachers have the discretion and autonomy afforded other professionals.

I find these arguments in favor of more responsive and teacher-directed learning compelling. And, given that teacher agency in PD is also emerging as a theme in my own dissertation research, I have been interested to read some of the challenges to it.

Most notably, in a response to Mehta’s blog post, Vanderbilt professor Ilana Horn was skeptical that putting teachers in charge of PD would by itself lead to transformative changes. For one thing, Horn argued, the radically localized nature of education in this country means that there is often inconsistent agreement about how problems are defined and how solutions many be conceived. As evidence, she pointed to psychologist Carol Dweck’s recent lament about how her concept of “growth mindset” had been misunderstood and misapplied in education. Hyper-localized teacher-led PD would only exacerbate the divergent interpretations and misapplication of concepts like non-cognitive skills. Furthermore, Horn argued, expertise among teachers is unevenly distributed, meaning that teacher-led collaborative learning “can be described as an accumulated advantage phenomenon, where the rich get richer.” That is, teachers with more sophisticated thinking bring more to these groups and get more out of them, invariably widening the expertise gap. Finally, the bureaucratic imperatives of schools, such as curriculum pacing guides and interim assessments, loom large and often derail even the best intentioned teacher-led inquiry groups and draw them back to technical day-to-day details.

But these opposing positions – agency or compliance, as characterized by Calvert – are perhaps more fluid that they appear. In arguing for greater teacher agency in PD, NCTAF and Learning Forward were not naïve about the institutional pressures facing districts, schools, school leaders, and teachers, conceding, “Lest we be guilty of inventing our own fairy tales, we must all acknowledge that providing teachers with more agency in their development will not solve every challenge in professional learning.” For that matter, Horn’s arguments in favor of expert-led PD should not be misconstrued as a boost for a technical-authoritarian view of teaching. On the contrary, in another blog post about PD, Horn made the case that teacher discretion and agency was vital for their work and that PD should be reimagined as a space in which teachers do not solely learn how to be competent conduits for information transfer but rather to engage in constructive meaning-making about who they are, what they do, and why they do what they do. “To develop teachers, we need to make them more effective actors in the complex social world of the classroom,” she wrote.

The argument for teacher agency is not one in favor of schools or districts abdicating all responsibility for teacher learning. Rather, it is an argument in favor of rebalancing the responsibility so that teachers feel like their learning needs – however they understand them and however they may change over time – are generally taken seriously. That doesn’t mean that there won’t be expert-led PD or required PD, nor does it mean that every teacher's every learning need can be honored, but it does mean that teachers would be afforded more latitude than they have now to treat themselves as autonomous and complex learners.

The increased trust that would emerge from such a reconceptualization seems to me imperative both for healthy school communities and for sustaining teachers’ intrinsic motivation for self-improvement. In my dissertation research, I asked teachers to tell me about their most powerful professional learning experience and about a corresponding professional learning experience that they “would like never to have again.” When I began analyzing my data, I found it hard to distinguish the good experiences from the bad ones based solely on their design features. Among good and bad experiences I found ones that were both “traditional” and “reform-minded” in format, school-based and external, content-focused and more cerebral, years-long and hours-long, pedagogically experiential and didactic. But as I have considered the data further, I am beginning to think that agency may be one of the most salient distinguishing features of the powerful professional learning experiences that teachers recounted with such exuberance and in such detail. Of the 25 powerful learning experiences I studied, 21 involved some degree of teacher agency. Of 15 corresponding negative learning experiences, 13 were mandated. The contrast, while certainly not conclusive, was striking and suggests to me that instead of carefully balancing the scales between agency and compliance it is preferable to tip them toward agency.

In the end, Mehta and Horn (and I) likely agree about more than we disagree. Teacher agency alone is clearly insufficient to improve professional learning or instructional improvement, but -- as Learning Forward Executive Director, Stephanie Hirsh noted during her closing remarks at yesterday's public release of the paper -- professional learning cannot improve without it.